Goals talk – and the favourites lost their voices at the wrong time. Eight of the 15 matches ended as draws and half of the contestants went home undefeated. The lineup for the finals may have altered the complexion of the tournament, with less experienced contenders taking places that the form books might have allocated to England, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain or the Netherlands – champions in 2011 and 2012. Risk-management factors were prevalent in the group stage, with the coaches also acutely aware that fourth position would deprive them of a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Ambitions to win groups were diluted by desires to finish in the top three.
The opening matchday certainly offered few pointers towards the final outcome. In Group A, the Slovakian hosts produced an added-time goal from a substitute to defeat Austria 1-0 while Sweden's powerful counterattacking gave them the same result against a Swiss side that had placed greater emphasis on building from the back and elaborate combination moves. In the other group, Italy expressed satisfaction after holding Croatia, the pre-tournament favourites, to a 0-0 draw, while Russia survived a shaky first half and went on to beat Ukraine 3-0 after breaking the deadlock with a superbly struck free-kick. At that stage, nobody would have predicted that it would be Russia's only win of the tournament or that they would score only one goal in their subsequent four games.
The second matchday might have been expected to clarify the picture, but three draws in four games did little to clear clouded issues. The only exception was a 2-1 win for Italy. Even this was not clear-cut. Daniele Zoratto's team were trailing 0-1 with five minutes on the clock, only for substitute Vittorio Parigini to equalise and for defender Mario Pugliese to steal a set-play winner in the third minute of added time. The result eliminated the Ukrainians from the competition. But they still had a World Cup berth to play for – and it did not appear to be mission impossible when Viktor Tsygankov put them, once again, a goal ahead.
Like the Italians, however, Croatia fought back to score their first goals and win 2-1 – a hollow victory for a side that impressed enough to earn three places in UEFA's technical team select. Although they were one of three teams with five points, the tournament regulations consigned them to third place in light of the 1-1 scoreline between Russia and Italy – a match which was peculiar enough to warrant comments elsewhere in this report. In Group A, a goalless draw between the hosts and Sweden similarly sufficed to send both contestants through to the semi-finals. Austria, meanwhile, finally moved into top gear during the first half of the game against the Swiss, earning a World Cup place despite a cautious, edgy second half. The Swiss did reduce the deficit to 2-1 but failed to find a sharp enough cutting edge to inflict further wounds – and missed out on the trip to the Emirates.
In the first semi-final, Slovakia (obliged to reshuffle due to the suspensions of key defenders Andrej Kadlec and Denis Vavro) had the misfortune to fall behind in the third minute but kept a skilful and dominant Italy at bay until central defender Elio Capradossi (one of only four players to score more than once during the tournament) sealed a 2-0 win with another set-play goal 16 minutes before the end. The other semi-final tilted in Russia's favour when Sweden had midfielder Erdal Rakip dismissed eight minutes into the second half. But Roland Larsson's well-organised side denied them a goal and, in the penalty shoot-out, had a 'match-ball'. But Russian keeper Anton Mitryushkin saved the ninth spot kick and, after 11 successful strikes, Isak Ssewankambo shot over. That allowed Ramil Sheydaev to seal victory with the 22nd penalty of a marathon shoot-out to ensure that the final would be a rematch of the Group B game between Russia and Italy.